Review: Clouds Above the Hill Vol I and II, Ryotaro Shiba

A small island nation was about to enter a period of great cultural change.

I believe that one of the best things that happened this year in the world of literature might have been the finalization of the translation of the two first volumes of Ryotaro Shiba’s monumental work on the Russo-Japanese War. Although I was firstly stunned by the price of these creatures (I managed to get them at a discounted ¬£35 each) I would kindly offer the opinion that they are, at least for me, well worth this money.

Now, I can already foresee a number of people decrying the style in which it is written — for I know that previous translations of Mr Shiba have seen this fate, and I also understand how it might be difficult for a person expecting “easy” reading to encounter this book which needs a continuous thought process for the reader to be able to follow what’s going on. This stems from that the author has not tried to make life any simpler than it was, so the number of names (and numbers, and dates) coming towards the reader is large indeed… but this is exactly the history I like. And it has a narrative story. My one wish right now would be for the same effective beautiful and compelling style to also take its measure against other events (for I am fairly confident that Mr Shiba did indeed cover Japan well enough).

Now, since we are dealing with a historical fiction piece (or, historical journalism, as the translator suggests in the introduction), the outcome of the war is never in doubt. There is something very appealing about a narrative added to a known outcome (the novel ‘Master of Go’ is quite the same in that) for me, and I can’t quite decide what it is. In any case, we are never in doubt that Japan will win and Russia will lose. This is despite the fools and idiots on the Japanese side and the brilliance of the Russians. No one side is definitively superior to the other in every single field. So, how and why did Japan win?

Ryotaro Shiba takes to looking at this question through the general narrative of the story but also by placing into it three people of renown: Masaoka Shiki, a critic of the haiku and waka; Akiyama Yoshifuru, the father of the Japanese cavalry; and Akiyama Saneyuki, brother of Yoshifuru and the person who designed the naval strategy responsible for the victories at sea.

Aside from these, we learn of the Russian, Chinese, and Japanese statesmen and military commanders of the time — a most educational trek into the fields of history, and one well narrated. The gift for details that the author has makes it all the more compelling: for indeed, though I knew of the war and the voyage of the Baltic Fleet beforehand, I had no idea they tried shelling British trawlers over Dogger Bank. This and similar gems along with a criticism we should take most seriously can be found throughout the first two volumes.

My one wish now is that it would be December 2013 and I’d have the Volumes 3 and 4 — they are supposedly out on the 30th November, and as things are I am quite sure I’ll read them the first chance I get after that. I am most confident they will not disappoint me. =)

In the dead of night, there was no moon or stars.

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